This edited article about John Audubon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 277 published on 6 May 1967.
John James Audubon, bird naturalist
With a sketch pad on his knees, the artist sat on a fallen log and began drawing. He wore the fringed buckskins of a North American backwoodsman, and his possessions, including his painting materials, were in a pack beside him.
For days he had been tramping through endless forest which had only previously been explored by wandering Redskins. Now he felt he was being rewarded for the hardships he had undergone as his pencil point deftly outlined a bird which he had never set eyes on before.
A keen love of nature, an ability to paint and a determination never to give up were the qualities which made John Audubon one of the greatest wildlife artists the world has ever known.
The son of a French naval officer, John Audubon was born at Mandeville in Louisiana, USA, on 5th May, 1780. Because of his father’s nationality, he was sent to Paris for his education. Here he realised that he wished to become an artist and he began to study painting under the most famous artist of the day, J. L. David, who specialised in vast pictures of historical subjects.
Money was short, and after a while John had to give up his studies and return to America, where he was forced to become a farmer.
It was a far cry from David’s fashionable studio to Pennsylvania, where the would-be artist was trying to eke out a living. But his desire to paint remained. If John could not work on huge canvasses, at least he could still draw on small sketch pads. And if he could not afford to hire beautifully costumed models, at least he could draw the birds which he saw every day round his farm.
And so John Audubon’s true career began.
It became his ambition to make a picture record of all the birds of North America. Leaving his farm for weeks on end, he would search the trackless forests for new specimens to draw.
Years went by and the collection of beautifully tinted drawings grew. Because of neglect, the artist’s farm did not do very well, and sometimes the Audubon family had very little to eat. Yet John’s wife never complained because her husband was less efficient than the other farmers of the district. She knew him to be an exceptional artist and she believed that one day the world would recognise him as such.
In 1826, the unknown farmer from Pennsylvania scraped up enough money for a one-way fare to England and took with him his collection of bird pictures.
People in Britain who saw his sketches were enthusiastic, so when Audubon returned home, he began putting his great work together.
When his Birds of America was finally published, it contained 435 coloured plates and 1055 life-size figures of birds. The work caused a sensation throughout the publishing world, and today these volumes are very valuable.
With this success behind him, Audubon went on to his second book, Quadrupeds of North America, in which he was helped by his sons, who seemed to have inherited his flair for nature drawing. This book was published three years after his death, which occurred on 27th January, 1851.